If you were going to whip up a Johnny Burke, the recipe would consist of the down-home values of Johnny Mercer, the romanticism of E.Y. Harburg, and the gentle humor of Frank Loesser—plus a dash of impish whimsy and a dollop of self-deprecation.
Burke was born in Antioch, California, on October 3, 1908. He spent his adolescence in Chicago, then moved to New York and got a job peddling pianos. Perhaps as a result of being in such close proximity to those eighty-eight keys, Burke turned to writing songs. He was called to California in the great song rush of 1929, at the advent of sound pictures, when the studios were intent on making millions on movie musicals. Burke wasn’t quite ready for his first professional job as a songwriter. As he recalled, “Getting that Fox contract was really a ‘freak.’ I went to the coast and, of course, wrote a couple of things. But I’ll admit they were very mediocre. The Fox people let me out at the end of the six months.
“I returned to New York and had to start all over again. The publishers didn’t take to my lyrics at all, and I knew no melody-writer with whom I could work. I wanted to write like Gilbert of ‘Gilbert and Sullivan’ fame. Wanted to write with my tongue in my cheek—not too sentimentally.”
His first hit, with Joe Young and Harold Spina, was “Annie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” in 1933. Burke described Spina as “fiery. He is musicianly. Very daring in his work.” The new team started without a dime but they were determined to write songs that departed from the usual Tin Pan Alley 32-bar AABB tunes. Today, songs like “Annie Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” and “The Beat of My Heart” don’t seem groundbreaking, but at the time they were oddities and considered very forward-looking. In fact, “Annie...” was given an ASCAP award in 1933. Publishers were doubtful about the songs’ chances. Remembered Burke, “The publishers kept turning us down. They accused us of writing over everybody’s head. They complained that the songs were too tricky.”
In 1935, Burke made another stab at Hollywood stardom, this time at Paramount Pictures. He was teamed with veteran songwriter James V. Monaco. Monaco was much older than Burke, born in Fornia, Italy, on January 13, 1885. He arrived in America at age six and taught himself to play the piano. After working in clubs in Chicago, Monaco moved to New York in 1910, trying to find work as a pianist. The next year he had his first song published, “Oh, Mr. Dream Man.” He wrote both the music and lyrics, which may explain why the song is forgotten today.
Monaco would have a smash hit the very next year when Lilliane Lorraine sang “Row, Row, Row” in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1912. The song is the very definition of a standard, still sung almost one hundred years since its first hearing. In 1913, Monaco and Joseph McCarthy were lucky enough to have Al Jolson introduce the song “You Made Me Love You.” Jolson put all his tremulous heart-tugging into his interpretation and the song was set to become one of the greatest hits of the century. It was revived in 1941 by Harry James and his orchestra and became a smash all over again.
Jolson picked up “You’re a Dog Gone Dangerous Girl” in 1916 and interpolated it into his hit show, Robinson Crusoe, Jr. Then came the Monaco hit “What Do You Want to Make Those Eyes at Me For?” After a few unmemorable tunes, Monaco and Jolson teamed up again in 1921 for a smash, “Dirty Hands, Dirty Face,” with lyrics by Edgar Leslie and Grant Clarke (and Jolson listed as colyricist too). Jolson sang it again in the first popular talking picture, The Jazz Singer, in 1928.
Monaco moved to Hollywood in 1930, around the time Burke hit the Golden State, but the composer was more successful than the lyricist. He worked on no fewer than twelve films in 1930 though none of the songs became hits. He stayed in Hollywood, working steadily, and, in 1936, signed with Paramount Pictures and met Johnny Burke.
Monaco and Burke were assigned to write songs for Bing Crosby pictures and they quickly became Crosby’s favorite songwriting team. Their first hit for Der Bingle was “I’ve Got a Pocketful of Dreams,” for 1938’s Sing You Sinners. They wrote “Six Lessons from Madame La Zonga” in 1940 and Jimmy Dorsey made it into a big hit with Helen O’Connell on vocals. The team wrote for the first of the Hope and Crosby road pictures, Road to Singapore (1940), and scored a hit with “Too Romantic.”
Monaco moved to Fox where he contributed a series of hit songs for films like Stage Door Canteen (1943), Pin-Up Girl (1944), Irish Eyes Are Smiling (1944), and The Dolly Sisters (1945—“I Can’t Begin to Tell You”). James V. Monaco died of a heart attack on October 16, 1945.
When Monaco left Paramount, Burke was left with- out a songwriting partner, so he was quickly paired with James Van Heusen. Van Heusen was born Edward Chester Babcock (a name that shows up in the road pictures) in Syracuse, New York, on January 26, 1913. He started writing songs in high school and even broadcasted them on a local radio station. His outgoing, gregarious personality made him well suited to a radio career but his given name didn’t exactly sing—so he took a new moniker from a famous shirt manufacturer and the rest is history.
Following high school, Van Heusen became a staff pianist for the Santly Brothers and Remick publishing companies in New York. He began writing songs in 1933, though he fancied himself a lyricist. He first began composing songs in 1938 with Jimmy Dorsey, among others, scoring two hits that year with “Deep in a Dream” and “Shake Down the Stars,” both written with Eddie De Lange. He and DeLange wrote the score for the 1939 Broadway show, Swingin’ the Dream, which proved to be a songwriters’ dream come true. In the cast of this jazzy retelling of Shakespeare’s A Midsum- mer Night’s Dream were Louis Armstrong and Maxine Sullivan, ably abetted by Butterfly McQueen; Dorothy, Etta, and Vivian Dandridge; the Deep River Boys; Jackie “Moms” Mabley; Dorothy McGuire; Nicodemus; Warren Coleman; and Oscar Polk—a veritable who’s who of black talent. In the pit were both the Benny Goodman Sextette and Bud Freeman’s Summa Cum Laude Band. Van Heusen and DeLange were inspired to write a big hit for the show, “Darn That Dream,” which Goodman recorded with Mildred Bailey.
In 1940 Van Heusen moved to Hollywood and teamed with Burke on the film Road to Zanzibar (1941). The two instantly clicked and came up with the first of their many standards for Crosby, “It’s Always You.” Tommy Dorsey made a hit recording of the song, sung by the young Frank Sinatra. The singer never forgot the song, and a decade later Van Heusen would become Sinatra’s composer of choice. In fact, in 1944 Van Heusen and comedian Phil Silvers would write a song commemorating the birth of Sinatra’s daughter, the hit “Nancy with the Laughing Face.”
The “road” pictures rolled on with Morocco (1942), Utopia (1945), Rio (1947), and Bali (1952), and so did the Burke and Van Heusen songs. The two spent practically their entire partnership at Paramount writing for Crosby, though there were notable exceptions such as Lady in the Dark (1944), and, well, that’s about it.
They did try their luck on Broadway with the show Nellie Bly in 1946. It was a flop. Another Broadway attempt, Carnival in Flanders (1953), starring John Raitt and Dolores Gray, was a failure too—though it did contain a standard, “Here’s That Rainy Day.” That basically marked the end of Burke and Van Heusen’s collaboration (they reteamed a couple of times, in 1954 and ’58). With the exception of Dubin and Warren, no team wrote as many great songs for Hollywood as Burke and Van Heusen.
Burke’s last hit was his lyrics to Erroll Garner’s “Misty” in 1954. He made another attempt at Broadway in 1961 with the show Donnybrook, for which he wrote music and lyrics, but the show, despite a marvelous score, was another failure. Johnny Burke died on February 25, 1964, in New York City.
Jimmy Van Heusen stayed in California after the breakup of the team, and in 1955 he teamed up with Sammy Cahn. They started their collaboration with a bang, working on a television musical version of Our Town (1955) starring Paul Newman, Eva Marie Saint, and Frank Sinatra. The score is tender and charming, and “Love and Marriage” emerged a standard.
By the mid-fifties Hollywood had changed and movie musicals were less in demand. So, between scores, Cahn and Van Heusen wrote title tunes for a variety of films. As Sinatra’s team of choice, they also wrote pop tunes for him to record, including the album Come Fly with Me (1957), with its swinging title tune and “It’s Nice to Go Travellin’.” The team perfectly captured Sinatra’s new ring-a-ding-ding persona—in fact, they helped to define it.
Cahn and Van Heusen also dreamed of Broadway success as a team. They first struck out with 1965’s Skyscraper, starring the unlikely Broadway musical star, Julie Harris. The score wasn’t bad, though, and “Ev’rybody Has the Right to Be Wrong” was a pop hit from the score. The next year, Cahn and Van Heusen took a few trunk songs they had written for the 1956 unproduced Paramount musical, Papa’s Delicate Condition, added a few more songs, and came up with the Norman Wisdom vehicle, Walking Happy. It, too, was a failure. The only song to achieve some success was the title song. (Another song from Papa’s Delicate Condition achieved pop success later, “Call Me Irresponsible.”)
Van Heusen retired to enjoy his boat, his weekly poker games, and his alcoholic refreshment. He died on February 7, 1990. (KB)
James Van Heusen explained to author David Ewen, “The song was written to dramatize Joe E. Lewis’s loss of his voice [in the film The Joker Is Wild] and the big jump musically at the end of the second bar to the middle of the third bar was specifically designed to be difficult for him to sing, and he was supposed to break down dramatically.”All the Way
Der Bingle inadvertently inspired this song during a dinner party that included Johnny Burke and Jimmy Van Heusen. One of Bing’s children acted up and he berated the boy, comparing him to a mule. Burke fashioned that idea into a song the next day and the phrase “...or would you rather be a mule?” was born.Swinging on a Star